Britain, the referendum and the reasons behind Brexit

By Moritz Osterhuber

Yesterday’s decision on flexible extension for the UK government until 31 October 2019 is rumoured to have only been reached over intense quarrels among European leaders, leaving French President Emmanuel Macron sidelined in the negotiation. Particularly the German delegation was angered by what they perceive as obstructionism intended to help Macron regain control of domestic affairs. The French President on the other hand voices fears that a continued UK membership might impede the proper functioning of the Union. With the dust raised by yesterday’s announcement and an EU that only just managed to maintain its united front, we at BridgeEurope decided to take a step back and look once more at the broader image of what caused this relative impasse that is Brexit in 2019. 


Two weeks ago, we posted about the official Leave campaign being fined over excess spending in breach of electoral law. The money had been channelled through the campaign’s youth-centred offspring “BeLeave” to the Canadian data consultancy AIQ, a move which prosecutors and the High Court found to be illegal since electoral spending limits had already been reached. The Remain campaign, too, has been fined over a lack of financial transparency during the campaign. Although the £19,000 fee came close to the stipulated maximum penalty in such cases of £20,000, the “[failure] to provide acceptable invoices or receipts for 80 payments” is arguably not as directly linked to the referendum outcome as the excess spending by the Leave campaign, which translated to an improved outreach capacity, but more on this later. 


Another aspect to consider here is that the Leave Campaign acted in accordance with official advice issued by the Electoral Commission, which according to the judges was under the “mistaken assumption that an individual or body which makes a donation to a permitted participant cannot thereby incur referendum expenses”. In essence, the Electoral Commission misinterpreted electoral law and and failed to consider donations to associated organisations as campaign expenses. In many respects Brexit turned out to be more complex than previously assumed - and so did some of the factors that led to it. 


Even two years after Article 50 has been triggered people continue to show extraordinary interest in the 2016 referendum, one of the more popular questions on Google being “why did Brexit happen?”. Just how suspicious people are of the campaigns is also shown by Google’s search query suggestions that feature extensions such as “Leave broke the law”, “Remain lies” and “Remain fined”. Where does this adversity and apparent interest in the Brexit referendum leave us? First, much of what surrounded the referendum in 2016 is still to be uncovered as multiple court cases are still pending, so judicial accounting for the events is going to take time. And second, as many reporters focus on negotiations in Brussels and the lamentable position Theresa May has manoeuvred herself into, it is worthwhile to remember the major steps preceding the referendum as some things appear to have gone unnoticed by the public. 


The Role of David Cameron 


It was then conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised the British public a membership on special terms (or special status as he liked to call it), a move that angered many EU diplomats. He went on to build his 2015 election campaign around the pledge to hold a referendum and demanded further opt-outs that would essentially result in a full control of migration and a veto right of EU legislation for the UK parliament. EU leaders, however, were not having it as German Chancellor Angela Merkel now famously remarked that membership hinges on respect for the EU’s fundamental principles and the obligations that spring from it. All the same, Cameron did manage to screw out some important concessions including the subsidiarity control mechanism that under certain circumstances allows to block EU legislation permanently.


Cameron was confident that these concessions would pave the way for a 70-30 type popular confirmation of the British EU membership. That is, he intended to kill two birds with one stone. First, he felt the need to reduce the appeal of the anti-EU platform of the rising UK Independence Party among his conservative constituency and, second, he intended to appease the now notorious European Research Group (ERG) within his own party who fervently opposes the European Union. David Cameron ended up prioritising party policy over national politics and set the stage for the divisive Brexit debate that was to follow. 


Inaccurate Information 

With the referendum approaching, a second crucial aspect is the misleading nature of much of the information that was available to voters. Some of the more despicable (because partly or entirely counterfactual) content of the Leave campaign has been released by Facebook in summer 2018 and subsequently collected by the BBC. The remain campaign is equally criticised for disseminating, if not false information, dishonest doom scenarios in case of a Brexit. This primarily boiled down to warnings of unemployment and recession. Even Council President Donald Tusk got involved when suggesting that Western political civilisation would be at stake. While particularly Tusk’s statement there is dripping with drama, it would be a long shot to claim that the warnings of economic downturn have been unfounded as by early 2019 as many as 25 multinational companies declared to undertake cuts or relocations for obvious political reasons. Recent announcements include the likes of Airbus, Honda, Ford, Sony as well as large parts of the financial industry, whose departure would not only hurt cosmopolitan London but also more peripheral towns such as Swindon where Honda is set to close a sizeable production site. What is more, the remain side never embarked quite as much on a strategy of fear-mongering and abstained from targeting migrants, a tactic employed by the Leave campaign to beguile right-wing and conservative voters. According to a report by the LSE, the arising hostile rhetoric incited xenophobia and caused a notable surge of hate crime in the UK.

Outreach Capacity and Campaign Finances

Besides a tainted relation to accuracy and truth, there is more to the Leave campaign of 2016 that merits discussion. One of these things is their enormous outreach capacity. As journalists working for German television programme “zoom” found out, the Leave campaign had devised a lottery-type scheme, promising a jackpot of £50M for getting right the entirety of the results of the 2016 European football championships. Largely unaware of the sweepstake’s political background, many people entered their contact details and thereby opened a window for the Leave campaign to parts of society not usually intrigued by politics that could be persuaded and mobilised by messages of national urgency. 


The same journalists also found worrying details pertaining to the finances of the Leave campaign that depended heavily on a donation of £8M stemming from British CEO and entrepreneur Arron Banks. He was headed for bankruptcy with a debt of approximately £70M but went on to make the largest donation to a political campaign in British history after meeting with Russian businessmen. This has led to some uneasy questions about foreign intervention as Labour MPs suspect parallels between the United States and the UK. While evidence - similar to the Mueller report - is not conclusive and Mr. Banks maintains that the funds stem from private savings, there is little doubt that the money played a crucial role in swaying voters and public opinion in favour of leaving the European Union. 

With Parliament unable to form a majority, the country appears to be irreconcilable on the issue of Brexit. Considering the now-granted extension, the menu of potential outcomes again ranges from a no-deal departure to rescinding Article 50 and staying in the European Union. Part of what has led to this ambiguous situation can be explained by campaign finances, outreach capacity, misinformation and the leadership (or lack thereof) of former Prime Minister David Cameron, but more topics are likely to surface in the coming months and years. Unfortunately, more controversial issues for British society are on the horizon. Given that Brexit not only divides political camps but splits people according to age, geography and socio-economic status, more controversy and conflict particularly in a no-deal scenario is likely to arise. At the same time, the peace in Northern Ireland might be set to undergo its most serious test since ink dried on the Good Friday Agreement and Scotland is bound to have another flirt with independence. An endeavour to appease hardliners within the conservative party has turned into a national political impasse with many risks and few viable solutions.